Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
I have always associated fire and torment with Hell – mostly due to childhood cartoons and this lake of fire in Revelation. (But see also Luke 16:19-31 and Mark 9:43.) Growing up in Tennessee I heard many sermons about this lake of fire, followed by altar calls asking, “Is your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life?” Each time I was afraid and would go forward for prayer ‘just in case.’ That guilt and shame can wrap people in their own “hell” – feeling isolated, unlovable and separated from God. Maybe you have heard similar sermons?
What if instead the lake of fire is a tool used by God to cleanse God’s creation from everything that has corrupted it? Like anti-bac spray cleans a counter top of germs, except the lake is 100% effective? What if the lake is a metaphor for God bringing justice, righteousness, and kindness back?
Previously in Revelation, God judged the living. Here, God judges the dead. God is God over all. Even dying is not an escape from God’s faithful and true judgement. Nobody wants to end up in the lake of fire with Death and Hades, but we do want justice. We want God to consider our pain and suffering and to punish those who harm us. We want the hurt caused by “Babylon” – aka Babylonian Empire, Persian, Greek, Roman, , racism, apartheid, patriarchy, slavery, corporate greed, apathy over the climate crisis, homophobia and transphobia – to be healed by God’s justice.
Revelation offers us this image of the final destruction of all the things that lead to death, the place where the dead ‘live’ (Hades) and even Death itself. The lake of fire consumes all that worked against God’s purposes of life and ‘life to the full’ for God’s creation. The destruction (or cleansing) happens for the purpose of new life. Revelation 21 begins: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’…”
What if instead of being afraid, the writer of Revelation calls us to marvel in awe and in hope for what God is doing and will do?
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. God – help me to be amazed by how you will reclaim, cleanse and restore Your world. Let me be found singing and dancing at Your banquet in Your new Heaven and Earth. Amen
The Rev’d Angela Rigby is a minister, serving URC churches in Tonbridge and Sevenoaks.
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
Psalm 24 is about the Lordship God has over the earth, in which everything belongs to God. At a mere word, everything yields to him, every door will open when he demands it. In one reading tradition, Psalm 24 was understood as one of many reassurances that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead, the one who defeats the power of death and hell over us. The Apostles’ Creed declares of Jesus, ‘he suffered death and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again’. Could this be so? Was Christ briefly in hell, and if so, what happened there?
From the fifth to fifteenth centuries, Christians turned to the so-called ‘the gospel of Nicodemus’ to discover the hell-storming tale of how the newly crucified Christ defeated and bound Satan, and rescued all those (non-Christians) who had died before him, taking them to heaven. The story was retold in sermons, liturgies, literature and artworks. Always there was a tension between the powerful image of Jesus who chooses to save everyone and a need to remind the Christian audience that this was not a licence to sin. Thus the York mystery play shows the first new inmate to the underworld – a barmaid who served short measures and watered down the beer. Other artworks show Judas arriving too late to be part of the pardon. Sometimes Eve has to beg particularly hard to be one of the redeemed.
Dare we live with the image of a Christ who rescues everyone from the clutches of death and the power of hell? Can we be comfortable with God whose nature is always to have mercy choosing to exercise that mercy for everyone? Even ? Can we imagine hell empty, voided of all power? Psalm 24 reminds us that no door is barred against the Almighty. God has the power to save all of us. Could that be in God’s nature and God’s plan?
Jesus our rescuer, when you knock upon the door we stand behind, may we choose to open it in gratitude and not fear, for we are wholly yours. The earth is yours, and everything it!
And you have declared that nothing in life or death can separate us from your love, no angel, or principality or power can keep you apart from us.
Beloved Jesus, rescue us. Amen.
The Rev’d Frin Lewis-Smith is a health care chaplain in Salford.